Garrett Crochet had never pitched in a minor league baseball game prior to his rehab assignment.
That rehab assignment is over now, and Crochet is back in the majors, where his pro career started during that COVID-impacted 2020 season.
Even making the transition from rookie to sophomore, Crochet was a different pitcher, so the Tommy John surgery that wiped away his 2022 shouldn’t be expected to have returned the eye-popping, triple-digit velocity that made him a relief weapon just a short time after being drafted. But during the White Sox’ division-winning campaign in 2021, Crochet was still plenty effective, ranking in the top four on the team with 54 relief appearances and posting a 2.82 ERA.
Crochet expects to be the same pitcher now, even if deep down he still approaches life as a starter. Those dreams might stay dreams for the time being, with Pedro Grifol planning a slew of possible ways in which to deploy the big left-hander.
“He’s got no restrictions. He’s a part of our bullpen, and we’ll use him for some length and we’ll use him for some leverage and we’ll use him for pockets,” Grifol said Tuesday. “We’ll use him as we see fit to help us win a baseball game.”
So he’s a Swiss Army knife, of sorts?
“He’s prepared to,” Grifol said. “Where it ends up, we’ll see, but he’s prepared to.”
Chris Sale comps might have flown the night he was drafted, but Crochet could be destined for a career as a bullpen arm, considering he hasn’t consistently started games since the earliest days of his college career at the University of Tennessee. He was limited to only one start during his junior season, with COVID bringing a halt to college athletics. He was immediately thrust into life as a big league reliever with no minor league season going on that summer. And after a full year as a major league bullpen piece, he spent an entire season away while recovering from Tommy John.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t live up to his draft position as a critical member of the White Sox’ pitching staff. The team’s bullpen is in dire need of better production, owners of the second-highest relief ERA in the game, better than only that of the miserable A’s.
Veteran arms Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman have straightened out after rocky starts to their respective seasons, and Gregory Santos and Keynan Middleton have come out of nowhere to perform well. But José Ruiz and Jake Diekman have already been cut loose. Meanwhile, Jimmy Lambert (6.23), Reynaldo López (7.64) and Aaron Bummer (9.45) have sky-high ERAs.
That Bummer has been the most off track of the active bullpen guys points to the importance of Crochet’s return, giving the relief corps another lefty who can be called on in high-leverage moments.
The biggest boost for the beleaguered unit, though, is yet to come. Liam Hendriks is due back from his rehab assignment soon, though it can’t get more specific than that after Hendriks told a reporter in Charlotte that he hasn’t felt ready and doesn’t want to return to the big league club only to be a burden on the team. Surely his teammates would feel nothing close to that, considering the much loved Hendriks is making a comeback after beating cancer. But it has altered the seeming nearness of his return.
The latest from Grifol is that Hendriks is set for his next minor league appearance Thursday — this after facing one batter in a planned “partial” outing Sunday — and that the White Sox will make an evaluation from there. But rather than following a specific road map to a return, at this point the White Sox are narrowing their evaluation process.
“We’ll play it outing by outing,” Grifol said. “It could be that he feels great at that time, it could be another week. There’s no blueprint for this, so we’re going day by day with him.
“It’s just him feeling that he can come up here and do what he normally does. He’s the only one that knows that. He’s the only one that feels his body, his mind. When you have a guy like him that has a good awareness of how he feels and is a good self-evaluator, then you go with it.”
If getting Crochet back is clutch for a battered bullpen, then getting Hendriks back could be a game-changer. He’ll obviously slot into his regular role as the team’s ninth-inning man, rearranging the way things have gone to this point, in terms of deployment. Grifol might manage the other innings the same way he has, but it’s fewer innings to manage thanks to the guy who saved 75 games in his first two seasons in a White Sox uniform.
“Anytime you get a chance to lengthen out your ‘pen, it’s a great boost,” Grifol said. “Our starting pitching, one thing they’ve done really well is they’ve given us some innings and some pitches. So when Liam comes, he backs up that bullpen a little bit. … You’re looking at shortening games up. It’s a big-time boost.”
Of course, there are myriad woes for this 14-28 team beyond the relief corps, and they’re waiting on reinforcements elsewhere, too.
Chiefly, that means the return of Eloy Jiménez from his recovery after he had an appendectomy earlier this month in Cincinnati. Initially, the White Sox announced an expected absence of four to six weeks, and it could still turn out that way. But the news so far, as minimal as it has been, has been good.
Jiménez had been seen doing the only thing he’d been cleared to do, briskly walking around the field, on this home stand, and Grifol revealed Tuesday that Jiménez has started running, in addition to being cleared for other activity.
Could it spell a sooner-than-expected comeback for the team’s biggest bopper?
“His legs feel good, his body feels good. He’s been cleared to start doing some stuff. And hopefully by the end of the week, he’ll start swinging a little bit,” Grifol said. “If he keeps going the way he’s progressing, we’re looking for him to join us sooner rather than later.
“At first, it was four to six weeks. We’ll keep assessing this, see how long he’s out. But he’s on a good pace right now.”
That would be brilliant news for an inconsistent White Sox offense that averaged just 2.86 runs a game during a 2-5 week after exploding for 17 in the final game of that series in Cincinnati. It might force a less-than-desired defensive alignment as Grifol needs to figure out a way to get both Jiménez and the just-back-from-the-IL Jake Burger into his daily lineup. But a White Sox lineup with Jiménez is better than a White Sox lineup without him. Much better.
Burger’s emergence as an important part of that daily lineup might impact the comeback of another, but Oscar Colás’ terrorizing of Triple-A pitching has not gone unnoticed back on the South Side.
Since being sent down after a tough first month in the majors that saw him bat just .211 with an OPS-plus of 50, Colás is raking at Charlotte, slashing .413/.462/.674 after 11 games. Numbers alone won’t determine that he’s ready for another shot at the big leagues — and listening to Grifol, it doesn’t sound like Colás has ironed out every issue he had — but the reviews are positive and could signal a return at some point.
“He’s certainly swinging the bat really well,” Grifol said. “We’re looking at more than just numbers. We’re looking at the quality of ABs, we’re looking at pitch recognition, we’re looking at the way he’s running the bases. There’s a lot of things that we need to continue to develop for him for when he comes up here, because we don’t want to get into that situation where he comes up, ‘OK, well he needs to work on this. Let’s send him back down again.’
“So let’s take our time with it, make sure he continues to develop the things we feel are going to make him a really good major league player, and when he’s ready, he’s ready.
“He is working hard every day. He’s got a checklist of things that he’s got to go through on a daily basis. He’s checking those boxes. That doesn’t mean that they’re without mistakes, but he’s improving. He’s taking it really serious. He understands the magnitude of fundamentals in this game.”
Again, Colás might find himself with less opportunity than he had after winning the everyday right-field gig during the spring, especially if Burger keeps hitting, pushing Jiménez to a potentially regular role in right field. But that’s all speculation until Jiménez gets back.
But it would be considered a good problem to have for a White Sox team that has once more been bombarded with injuries, a contributing factor — though far from the only one — to a 42-game start that has produced one of the three worst records in baseball.
But if the White Sox are going to pull off any sort of miracle turnaround, a full roster will be integral.